kuan yin female dharma ancestors
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Women Ancestors join us for service

written by
Anne Ross

We are happy to share with you the arrival of women to our morning invocation of ancestors who’ve been instrumental in instantiating zen practice through the centuries. While countless women, named and unnamed, have lit the path for themselves and others, we’ve chosen twenty to represent those whose contributions have particular relevance for our linage.

1. Mahapajapati
500 BCE, India

Mahapajapati was Shakyamuni’s maternal aunt, and raised him as his stepmother after his mother died soon after his birth. Her formal admittance to the Buddhist Sangha as its first nun required great perseverance. After numerous refusals from the Buddha (ostensible due to the cultural challenges at that time presented by having females in the order) and with Ananda’s help, she became the first female monk and leader of a female monastic community. She is said to have lived to 120 years.
Source: The First Buddhist Women: Translations and Commentaries on the Therigatha by Susan Murcott

2. Dhammadinna (BZC, SFZC)
500 BCE, India

Dhammadinna became a nun after her husband left her for the monastic order. Her practice is said to have been largely solitary, in the forest, and she developed her understanding to a subtle degree. The Buddha said “her words were the same as his, and she [was] foremost in insight”. She was consider to be a skilled teacher and had many disciples of her own. Her sermons are preserved in the Majjhima Nikaya.
Source: The First Buddhist Women: Translations and Commentaries on the Therigatha by Susan Murcott

3. Khema
500 BCE, India

Khema was supposedly a beautiful consort of King Bimbisāra, and awakened to the totality of the Buddha’s teaching after hearing it only once, as a lay woman. Thereafter, she left the palace to become a nun, eventually becoming Pajapati’s assistant, helping to run the first community of nuns. She was called the wisest among all female disciples, and shared the teaching with many other women.
Source: The First Buddhist Women: Translations and Commentaries on the Therigatha by Susan Murcott; Women of the Way by Jiko Sallie Tisdale

4. Sundari-Nanda
(sun-DA-ri NAN-da)
500 BCE, India

Sundari-Nanda was the Buddha’s half-sister, born to Pajapati. While her initial motivation to join the Buddhist order was to be close to her many family members who had left palace life to seek the way, she eventually developed deep insight into impermanence, and became particularly skilled at abiding in the jhanas.
Source: The First Buddhist Women: Translations and Commentaries on the Therigatha by Susan Murcott

5. Jing Jian
(jing jien)
5th century CE, China

Jing Jian was drawn to Buddhism from a young age, however had no access to instruction. She finally met a monk who had a monastery in Nanking, and awakened upon hearing the Dharma, becoming the first Buddhist nun in China. She founded the Bamboo Forest Convent with numerous followers.
Source: Lives of the Nuns, translated by Kathryn Ann Tsai (#28)

6. Zong Ji
(tsong gee)
504-575, China

Little is known about Zong Ji (Zong Chi, Tsung- ch’ih) other than she is considered to be one of Bodhidharma’s four primary disciples who joined him in Luoyang. After articulating her understanding of his teaching, Zong Ji was told by Bodhidharma, “You have attained my flesh”.
Sources: Zen’s Chinese Heritage by Andy Ferguson; Women of the Way by Jiko Sallie Tisdale

7. Ling Zhao Pang
(ling jow)
762-808, China

The spirited daughter of Layman Pang, a famous Zen adept, Ling Zhao Pang spent much of her life traveling with her father, seeking teachings and meditating. Quite the adept herself, she is known through the many playful stories of her dharma debates with her father, often besting him, much to his delight. When he announced he would be leaving this dusty world, she tricked him into stepping outside to see the eclipse of the sun; he returned to find she had taken his seat, and died sitting up. Layman Pang clapped with glee and said, “Oh that girl! She was alway ahead of me.”
Source: Record of Layman Pang by Ruth Fuller Sasaki; Women of the Way by Jiko Sallie Tisdale

8. Liu Tiemo
(lee-o tee-eh mow)
780-859, China

Known as ‘Iron Grinder Liu’, she was a Dharma Heir of Guishan Lingyou. She appears in Case #60 of the Book of Serenity and Case #24 of the Blue Cliff Record in an encounter with Guishan, and also features in the verse in case 17 of the Blue Cliff Record. Known as formidable in Dharma Debate, little is actually known of her life, as is the case with many women ancestors. She nevertheless serves to exemplify a strong, independent, and accomplished women practitioner at a time when women had far less opportunity to formally devote themselves to Buddhist practice.
Source: #60 Book of Serenity; #24 Blue Cliff Record; Women of the Way by Jiko Sallie Tisdale

9. Moshan Liaoran
800-900, China

Moshan was a disciple of Gao’an Dayu and is the first woman Dharma heir in the official Ch’an transmission line, as well as being the singular woman with a record of her own in the “Records of the Transmission of the Lamp”. Moshan, which means Summit Mountain, was well known in her time and referred to by many later writers. She is one of the role models of wisdom cited by Dogen in the chapter Raihaitokuzui (“Paying Homage and Acquiring the Essence”) in the Shobogenzo, where he notes that Guanqi Zhixian, who studied under Moshan, had the willingness to overcome his cultural resistance to being taught by a woman due to the depth of his desire to attain understanding. She is sometimes called “Mother Moshan” or “Mt. Mo.”
Source: Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang through Ming, 618-1644, edited by Lily Xiao Hong Lee, Sue Wiles, The Power of Denial: Buddhism, Purity, and Gender, by Bernard Faure

10. Mai You Ci
(Mai Yo Tzu)
8-9th century, China

Her name means “Seller of Fried Cakes”, and she is famous for her encounter with Zen master Deshan at a roadside stall where she was selling refreshments. An expert commentator on the Diamond Cutter, Deshan had not yet experienced deep realization. She probed his understanding, and exposed at once his ignorance, as well as her own unexpected illumination. The encounter opens Deshan’s way-seeking mind, and he burns his commentary’s and enters a training monastery.
Source: #4 Blue Cliff Record; Zen Women: Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens, and Macho Masters, by Grace Schirenson

11. Miaoxin
(miao shin)
840-895, China

She was a disciple of Yangshan Huiji, and served as minister of secular affairs for his monastery. She was known as the gatekeeper, challenging visiting monks whose understanding she found lacking. She was esteemed by Dogen, and cited as an exemplar of the Dharma in his fascicle Raihai-tokuzui.
Source: Dogen’s Shobogenzo, “Raihaitokuzui”; Women of the Way by Jiko Sallie Tisdale

12. Daoshen
late 10th – early 11th cent., China

She was a Dharma Heir of Furong Daokai (Fuyo Dokai), a master who helped revive the Soto line in China when it had declined. She had two male Dharma Heirs.
Source: https://www.ancientdragon.org/women-ancestors/

13. Kongshi Daoren
Early-Mid 1100s, China

Her parents prevented her from becoming a nun, so she practiced in solitude, awakening after reading Tu-shun’s “Contemplation of the Dharmadhatu.” She wrote the “Record on Clarifying the Mind,” which was circulated throughout China at the time. She finally became a nun in old age.
Source: Women of the Way by Jiko Sallie Tisdale

14. Yu Daopo
12th Century, China

She was the only Dharma heir of Langye Yongji and remained a laywoman. She was awakened upon hearing Linji’s teaching of the “true man of no rank.” Zen master Yuanwu recognized her accomplished practice after engaging in Dharma debate with her.
Sources: Women of the Way by Jiko Sallie Tisdale; The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women, by Florence Caplow and Susan Moon

15. Miaodao
Late 1100s-1200s, China

She was an important teacher with many recorded sermons and records who studied in both the Coadong and the Linji school of Chan, eventually becoming a Dharma heir of Dahui. Under Dahui’s instruction she took up huatou practice, and eventually had an awakening experience as a result of meditation on her phrase. She became the abbess of several important convents in China, and was considered one of the most important female teachers in the Song period.
Source: Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang through Ming, 618-1644, edited by Lily Xiao Hong Lee, Sue Wiles

16. Ryonen
Early 13th cent., Japan

She was one of Dogen’s main disciples, and he praises her practice multiple times in the Eihei Koroku.
Source: https://www.ancientdragon.org/women-ancestors/, Miriam L. Levering; “Dogen’s Raihaitokuzui and Women Teaching in Sung Chan,”

17. Ekan
d. ca. 1314, Japan

The women’s Japanese Soto Zen order was founded by several women who both
studied under and influenced the Soto Zen masters Eihei Dogen and Keizan Jokin. One of these women was Ekan, the daughter of Myochi (herself a student of Dogen). Ekan was Keizan Jokin’s mother, but he also considered her his spiritual guide. She became abbess of a Soto convent, Jojuji, and was a strong influence on the development of Soto Zen through the upbringing of her son Keizan. She was devoted to teaching Buddhism to women and founded another temple, Hooji. Keizan gave both his mother Ekan and his grandmother Myochi the credit for his career as a Soto Zen monk. It was said that Keizan, so affected by the depth of his mother’s practice, vowed to help women’ practice in the three worlds and the ten directions.
Source: Women of the Way by Jiko Sallie Tisdale

18. Kinto Ekyu
ca. 1300, Japan

She was Keizan’s disciple at Yoshoji and the first Japanese woman to receive full Soto Dharma transmission, around 1323. Thereafter she instructed other women in Soto Zen practice.
Source: Women of the Way by Jiko Sallie Tisdale

19. Mokufu Sonin
Early-Mid 1300s, Japan

She was a generous benefactor and disciple of Keizan and the daughter of Shôzen, another prominent female student of Keizan. She ordained after the death of her husband in 1319 and received dharma transmission from Keizan in 1325. She was the first abbot of Entsu’in, an important convent. Keizan said that he and she were inseparable. It is assumed that his respect for her practice was instrumental in Keizan’s decision to recognize the spiritual equality between men and women.
Source: Visions of Power: Imagining Medieval Japanese Buddhism, by Bernard Faure Women of the Way by Jiko Sallie Tisdale

20. Otagaki Rengetsu
1791-1875, Japan

Rengetsu was an orphan, raised by a Pure Land Buddhist priest, and and trained in Japanese traditional arts. Tragedy informed her early life as a wife and mother, being twice widowed by her mid 30s, and suffering the loss of her three young children. She thereafter returned to her adoptive father’s home where she devoted herself to studying Pure Land and Zen buddhism, and particularly to expressing her understanding through poetry, painting and ceramics. She is considered one of Japan’s finest female calligraphers. She was a prolific and much-sought-after artist who shunned fame during her lifetime, and was know to let other artisans claim her pottery as their own work.
Source: Patricia Fister, Japanese Women Artists, 1600- 1900

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